During the early nineties in East New York, people of my skin color were not seen very often walking down the street. I remember a Cru mission I joined that was helping a local minister advertise a tutoring program at a notorious high school in the neighborhood. We would go door to door in the projects, handing out fliers. I remember the shock and amusement on the faces of the mom’s who opened the door to greet us. What were we doing in their neighborhood? Our flier told the story, but our conversation often led to their sons and daughters, and the tough street life that was ever luring them into it’s yawning grip.
The police back then would stop our group, and also ask, “what are you doing here?” Without waiting for a response. “Don’t you realize this is a dangerous part of town?” Pointing their finger they would suggest we get back on the subway. We would smile in a naïve, sort of innocent middle-class way.
When we met students on the street, they were friendly, and willing enough to take our brief survey. The first question was always, ‘who do you think has been the most influential person in history?’ This sweeping query never fazed them. Nine out of ten students would fire back, ‘Martin Luther King Jr.” Then they would stick their chest out just a little, look you dead in the eye, and almost dare you to disagree.
At the time, to be honest, I didn’t get it. Sometimes I would say, well how about…and then give them my thoughts on who I thought was ‘the greatest.’ The question was designed to somehow meander its way to the person of Jesus, but it never went there. Martin Luther King dominated the landscape, and if I asked them, why him, they grew more animated.
“He led us out of bondage.”
“He died for what he believed.”
“We wouldn’t have nothin without his courage to lead.”
That period of time began to open a door, though I admit only a small narrow crack, to teach me about another narrative running parallel to history, the story of power; those who weld it, and those who sit under it’s system and structure, and often face oppression, disenfranchisement and injustice. The Africans brought to our country against their will were not the first oppressed and brutalized race in history. Not by a long shot. But it happened here, in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’ It happened while our great nation roiled in war, blossomed in trade, and grew up, strong, powerful, and a beacon of freedom to the world.
So, when Martin Luther King Day comes around each year, I give pause.
I remember young black men and women’s pride at the mention of his name, even in the throes of poverty and crime.
To help remember, I read Letters from a Birmingham Jail, in small measure to give honor to a man who did ‘die for what he believed,’ and was used by God to begin a revolution, which is still moving forward, though not without set back and heart break. What he began still brings hope and opportunity to those with a 400-year history behind them of being on the other side of power.
All that leads me to the bread lady.
Today on Martin Luther King’s day, I bought a loaf of my favorite bread from a smiling lady at the local food mart.
“Happy Martin Luther King Day,” I projected with enthusiasm across the counter.
She looked up from bagging my loaf, and said, “Oh, thank you!”
I explained to her that while living in New York, I grew to appreciate the significance of the day.
“I bet they did it up right up there,” she said. Then without a pause, “I wish they gave us the day off with pay!”
We both laughed.
“Have a great one,” I said.
“Thank you, I will!” In her voice I heard the same pride, I heard identity, I heard a quiver of excitement that just for a moment, in the space between us, a hero was being honored.
Perhaps that’s something we can all do, on this cold, special day, January 15, 2018.